How can we encourage more women to report rape?

We invited four sexual-assault activists to come together to discuss real solutions. Here are five concrete ideas that emerged.


L to R: Tagaq, Villanueva, Khan and Canning.

Fact: A staggering 97 per cent of all sexual assaults will never be reported to police. There are endless ways to explain that statistic — shame, a lack of faith in the legal process, ignorance about what actually constitutes an assault in the first place. As part of our year-long Project 97 initiative, we convened a panel of four sexual-assault activists in an effort to find solutions to the widespread problem of underreporting. Our panelists were Tanya Tagaq, a Polaris Music Prize–winning musician based in Manitoba; Andy Villanueva, 18, co-founder of Toronto sexual-bullying initiative Project Slut; Farrah Khan, an activist and social worker/counsellor at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic in Toronto; and Glen Canning, a Nova Scotia-based activist and father of Rehtaeh Parsons. Here are five actionable ideas.

Idea #1: Treat violence against women like the epidemic it is and fund emergency services.

Farrah Khan: We treat violence against women like, “Oh, this happened. That happened.” It’s made to seem random, like it doesn’t happen to many women. But it’s an epidemic in Canada. It has a long-term and devastating impact. The fact is we don’t have a national strategy to [combat] violence against women, the same way we don’t have an inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women. It’s so hard for women to find lawyers when they want to leave their abusive partners. It’s so hard for survivors to get access to counselling. [At the Schlifer Clinic], we have 4,000 women access our services each year. Our wait-list is full all the time.

Idea #2: Take the onus off of victims to provide an explanation for their assault.

Glen Canning: The biggest [issue] really is the lack of support people get — they get asked, “Oh, are you sure? What were you wearing? How much were you drinking?” Even with my daughter that was the case. It was, “Why was your daughter in someone’s house who had alcohol?” That’s not a factor in rape — it’s a defense rapists use to get away with it, and we need to start understanding that. We have a justice system that’s just overwhelmingly against a victim, that makes them get up on the stand and have their whole life ripped apart.

In Rehtaeh’s case, the police officers spent three months investigating her — whether or not she was promiscuous, whether or not she was the kind of girl who would lie, whether or not she was, you know, “a party girl.” During this time, her whole life was being destroyed by four people who were bragging about having sex with her while she was unconscious, and the officer never spoke to any of them at all. It’s ridiculous to me. These barriers are pretty ingrained in our society. But I am hoping that there’s been a shift now because of Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd  and a lot of other people.

Idea #3: Understand that there are cultural differences. There’s no one-size-fits-all-solution.

Khan: Look at the situation with indigenous women: We see it in the courts when a story comes out, people go very quickly to the questions Glenn was speaking about, “What’s your past history? Did you drink? You’re part of the sex trade, right?” I work with the Muslim and South Asian communities, and they talk about not going to police because they already feel [violated]. There’s already this shame around the community. Then you ask them about reporting sex assault and they’re thinking, “Oh, now, I’m going to end up [being viewed as a] liar in my community.” There’s a fear, right?

And with a lot of young women — because we know that sexual violence happens to young women, particularly between the ages of 16 and 24 — it comes down to, “I didn’t want to tell my mom and dad because they didn’t know I’m sexually active. Now I have to tell them that I was sexually assaulted.” Or, “I don’t want to tell my mom and dad because I don’t want to be called a slut for it.” There are lot of things that hold young women back, and it hurts my heart because I feel like, gosh, you’ve already been through this horrible thing, and then on top of that, you’re so fearful of telling people you love and care about. But it’s understandable. I spoke openly about being a survivor of child sexual abuse [by a relative] and my poor dad… I didn’t prep him for the article. When it came out, he received real backlash in the community. He worried about my what my marriage prospects would be like…. There’s a lot of fear that you’ll be seen as tainted goods. We need to shift that.

Idea #4: Recognize that “good” men rape.

Khan: If we think like that, then we need an island. We’ll just send all the rapists to one island. But it’s not as simple as that. It’s not one guy in a community, and it’s not one guy walking around the high school. It’s not one guy in a family. We need to talk about the fact that it’s multiple people, and also the idea that women experience multiple forms of sexual violence.

Having these types of conversations is hard because there’s a lot of trauma: I remember I was doing an interview with a journalist, and while we were talking, he realized that he’d had sex that wasn’t consensual.  He was intoxicated and she was intoxicated, so he was like, “I guess it’s okay.” Good men rape women. Nice, smiley men who are fathers and are really nice to one woman will rape [another]. I know men who are activists who do work [fighting] violence against women that have raped women. I think we need to move past that idea that it’s a scary guy behind a bush. To be a masculine person isn’t a bad thing — what’s bad is violence, and not having control. And women can perpetuate sexual violence by condoning the violence, by closing the door when they see their friend getting raped.

Idea #5: Teach teens that consent is sexy.

Tanya Tagaq: There should be a [sex-ed] curriculum all the way from kindergarten. Of course, when you’re a little kid, it would just be about boundaries, like, “This is yours and that’s his.” But in older grades, they should be having frank conversations. A lot of these young people, they’re getting their sex-ed from internet pornography. I was noticing that in the Jian Ghomeshi case, people tend to think that consent is static — [as though] if you started making out with me, then that means that it’s okay to do whatever you want to me. But it’s not like that. If a young girl starts having sex with somebody, she should be able to say, “Stop,” and they go away. And definitely, if a person can’t walk or talk, or is incapable of doing a fundamental physical task, then it’s 100 per cent rape.

Andy Villanueva: We [also] need to talk about how consent is sexy. Usually when we talk about consent, it’s like a turn-off — it’s something that’s going to stop the heat of the moment. So it’s about introducing conversations that make consent sexy, because when you find out that you both want to do something, that’s cool. As soon as people say that, it just becomes this trendy thing. But yeah, there are a lot of people who say that kind of conversation is boring.

Tagaq: Sex is amazing — it’s giving a gift to each other. But I think it becomes a problem when it is seen as something that you take, or something that you feel you have the right to. That’s what happens, I think, with a lot of pornography. It makes you forget that a real flesh-and-blood person is there. It’s a gift of yourself, of the inside of our bodies, of who we are. I just feel that kind of gets lost somewhere along the way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered every weekday morning.